United Kingdom Research and Innovation, Medical Research Council and King's College London

Frequently asked questions

Below are some questions that we have been asked about our work. Click on each question to view our response, and if you can’t find what you’re looking for, scroll to the bottom to submit your question.

A Note about terminology

On our website, we use the terms the scientific and medical community use for clarity about what we are referring to specifically. We know that different people have different preferences and opinions about terminology and language relating to neurodevelopmental conditions. When we talk to people individually, we always try to use the words and terminology that person prefers but with a website, it is difficult to use language that everyone will be happy with. The language used on this website may change over time and we will update sections according to the prevailing language and terminology preferences

Basic science questions

Genes are small sections of DNA (a molecule that carries genetic instructions) that act together and form the units of inheritance. Genes carry information, sets of instructions, and many carry the blue-prints for proteins. Proteins are important molecules that have a wide variety of roles to play in the body, including the brain).

Each gene in your genome (the term for all the genes an organism has) plays a distinct role in how a body grows and functions. Genes are made from things called nucleotides, known by four letters (A, C, G and T). As the letters of the alphabet can be arranged in countless different ways, so there are countless different arrangements for the nucleotides. The instructions that a gene carries comes in the form of a code based on sequences of nucleotides. A genetic mutation describes an alteration in the nucleotide sequence which may (or may not) change the instruction which may (or may not) result in a physical, observable or other kind of change or difference in the organism.

Neuro­developmental disorders

Neuro­developmental disorders are conditions that are caused when the brain develops differently and can have lasting effects on behaviour, memory, or the ability to learn. Examples of neuro­developmental disorders include autism spectrum conditions, schizophrenia, and some forms of epilepsy, as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and intellectual disabilities.

The term ‘neuro­developmental disorders’ is very broad and encompasses several disorders and conditions. Consequently, many symptoms are associated with neuro­developmental disorders, and these can emerge at vastly different points in development in children and young adults. Common signs of a neuro­developmental condition include differences in social interactions, communication, or sensory experiences, atypical behaviour, and difficulties with aspects of learning, thinking, and processing. Neuro­developmental disorders can also affect emotional experiences and emotion regulation.

Neuro­developmental disorders have a biological origin with a wide variety of causes from genetic to environmental and the interaction of the two. These precursors, or triggers, affect the way the brain develops which, in turn, affects how we emerge as individuals. We do not yet fully understand the path from conception to the development of these conditions and the MRC Centre for Neuro­developmental Disorders was created precisely for this reason. Our mission at the Centre is to understand the biological underpinnings of these conditions so that we can ultimately, as a community, develop better treatments to improve lives.

Autism spectrum conditions are classified by the medical and scientific communities as a neuro­developmental condition. In addition to the observable features such as characteristic behaviours, autism is associated with specific neurological facets that develop from very early life and impact daily functioning. This said, there are many autistic people who have average or above average intelligence and need no support in daily life. For these people, it is obvious that their form of autism is not a disorder.

Schizophrenia is a mental health condition that affects the way you think and results in not always being able to distinguish reality from your own thoughts and ideas (psychosis), problems with thinking and processing information and ‘negative symptoms’ including blunted emotions, social withdrawal and lethargy. Many changes in the brain are associated with schizophrenia although we don’t yet know how these changes are caused or how they, in turn, lead to the symptoms of schizophrenia.

Psychosis describes some of the symptoms that occur in schizophrenia and some other disorders and means that the person experiencing it is perceiving or interpreting reality in a way that is very different from the people around them. Common types of psychotic experiences include hallucinations (hearing, seeing, feeling, tasting and smelling things in a different way from other people), delusions (unshakable beliefs that others don’t share and cannot be or are not true), and disorganised thinking and speech.

Epilepsy is a disorder in which brain activity becomes abnormal causing seizures. Seizures are bursts of electrical activity in the brain that temporarily affect how it works, causing a wide range of symptoms that include periods of unusual sensations, behaviour, and sometimes loss of awareness.

An intellectual disability is diagnosed when an individual has both a substantially reduced ability to understand complex or new information and skills and this results in a reduced ability to live independently.

Cognition refers to an individual’s thinking and mental processes. The term cognitive deficits is a broad term used to describe certain impairments in aspects of an individual’s thinking or mental processing. For example an individual may have a deficit in the speed at which they can process information yet have no deficits in their episodic memory.

Neuro­developmental disorders can only be diagnosed by qualified health professionals. These disorders comprise a broad range of different conditions which are diagnosed by meeting the clinical criteria. These criteria are normally assessed through an interview with the person being diagnosed/their parents and consider reports from other people such as teachers. For some neuro­developmental disorders, the person being diagnosed may be given some tests for the health professional to gather more information. If you are concerned that you or your child may have a neuro­developmental disorder, ask your GP about assessments and diagnosis.

There are currently no cures for neuro­developmental disorders although there are therapies and medications available to help people with these conditions control some of the symptoms they experience. Currently available medication and therapies cannot treat all the symptoms of all neuro­developmental disorders however, and this is something we would like our work to help change.

The research that is conducted by the MRC CNDD will help people affected by neuro­developmental disorders by improving understanding and awareness of the disorders, communicating with policymakers and clinicians and by laying the foundations for research to develop better therapies. To find out how we can best design treatments, we need to understand more about the biology that underlies the range of disorders, so we design and test better therapies and medicines. If you would like to find out more about the research we do, please go to our research page. If you would like to have a say in our research, have a look at our [Get Involved] page to see if there are any opportunities open.

No, we are not developing genetic tests for any neuro­developmental disorders. The Centre is strongly opposed to eugenics. It is unlikely that a genetic test could ever be developed that is sufficiently specific or accurate to predict neuro­developmental disorders in later life. This is due to the combination of thousands of genes involved in these conditions and the added complexity of the effect of environmental factors upon the mix of genes. The genetic research we do in neuro­developmental disorders has the aim of more closely defining the underlying causes of the range of disorders we see so that we can develop better treatments for individuals.

This website has been designed and written to provide an overview of the current research in the MRC CNDD and should not supersede information or advice offered by your clinician. Before research can be incorporated into clinical advice, there are many steps to follow to ensure the safety and accuracy of the information. On this site, we aim to give you an idea of the research we’re doing and what we’re finding out from our experiments only.

Our research

Schizophrenia is a mental health condition and neuro­developmental disorder which is associated with blurring reality and what is in the person’s head, as well as problems with thinking and emotions. People who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia frequently have extensive changes in their brain’s structure and function. The research on schizophrenia in the MRC CNDD aims to provide new insights into the brain’s biology in this condition by linking neuroimaging studies in people with our research using mouse models to explore the biology at a deeper level.

Numerous genetic alterations contribute to the development of autism spectrum conditions (ASC) and related intellectual changes although we do not yet know how these lead to the broiad spectrum of abilitied we see. One important question we are investigating is how different genetic alterations can disrupt similar processes in the developing brain. The aim of our research in ASC is to join up our clinical observations with a better understanding of the roles that specific genetic alterations play in development.

Around one per cent of the population has some form of epilepsy and out of these more than half will have their first seizure during childhood. For those who first develop seizures as adults or during late adolescence, many will have some genetically determined developmental anomalies. The aim of the research we do on epilepsy is to uncover the biological mechanisms that underlie different epilepsies - from those at the level of the cell to those that can be detected in brain circuits (many cells communicating with each other).

We use certain species of animal (rats, mice and zebrafish) in our research to gain an understanding of some physiological, neurological and pathological processes that we wouldn't otherwise be able to. Although rats, mice and zebrafish don’t have identical brains to humans, they are extremely useful model organisms to better understand some of the aspects of neuro­developmental disorders. We only use animals in our research where we absolutely could not find out the same things through other means (such as looking at cells in a dish). We are committed to the principles of Replacement, Reduction and Refinement, known as The 3Rs. For the UK, there are strict ethical, legal, and scientific principles that govern the use of animals in research. We adhere strictly to the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, and we are regularly inspected by the Home Office. The benefits of animal research to medicine have been enormous and, if it were to be abandoned, there would be devastating consequences for health and medicine.

Getting involved

To get involved in activites with the Centre, have a look at our public engagement page or get in touch with us at mrc_cndd@kcl.ac.uk

The MRC CNDD does not run clinical trials although some of our investigators are involved with them. If any of our investigators in the Centre are currently recruiting participants for a trial, you will find information on how to take part by following the links here.

No, the Centre is not trialling or offering any experimental treatments to anyone. If you are interested in taking part in a clinical trial, you will find information about any trials currently recruiting by following the links here.

The Centre does not run any support groups although there are many support groups for a broad range of neuro­developmental disorders that you can find via Google. We frequently hold activities relating to our work and there are many opportunities to get involved with what we do throughout the year. Head to our public engagement page to see what we have done previously, or get in touch with our Public Engagement Manager, Leigh Wilson (leigh.wilson@kcl.ac.uk).

You can get in touch with us by e-mailing us at mrc_cndd@kcl.ac.uk or have a look at the Contact Us information at the bottom of this page.

Any other question?

If you couldn’t find something you were looking for, please send your question using the form below. We review and update the FAQs regularly

Support Our Work